Language development in the first year

How your baby finds his voice and how you can encourage his speech development

When you bring your new baby home it may seem like his talking days are a long way off, but speech is a skill that your baby will be working towards intently from the day he’s born. At first, of course, he’ll only be able to communicate with you by crying but he’ll be able to listen to you and will very soon try to talk back, producing some delightful sounds as he builds the building blocks for speech.

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Ellie

Crying is the first step of your newborn baby’s journey towards speaking and as you get to know him in the first few weeks you’ll probably begin to be able to hear how his cries differ from one another when he’s hungry, tired, over-stimulated, bored or just in need of a cuddle. And crying won’t be the only noises you’ll hear from your newborn, he’ll also be able to slurp, grunt and yawn – he may even have a few gurgles too.

As your baby listens to you and those around you in these early weeks, he’s busy absorbing the sounds that make up his mother tongue and will be keen to imitate grown-up communication. At first he’ll probably listen without looking at you, but by six weeks your baby may turn to look at you intently as you talk. Most babies will now be producing gurgles, squeals and vowel-sound coos of ‘ahhh’ ‘eeee’ or ‘oooo’ and will quickly add the others to his repertoire. It’s also around this time that many parents see their first true smiles, one of the most heart-warming communication milestones.

At times over the next few months it may seem like your baby is producing new sounds almost daily, at others he may seem to seem stuck on one thing. Don’t worry if he does seem pre-occupied with one sound for a while, babies often like to fine-tune one skill before moving on to the next. By four to five months your baby may be enjoying blowing raspberries, humming and making burring noises and will probably also have begun to laugh when something has amused him.

When your baby starts teething, which is often between four and six months, he may produce some interesting noises as he tries to chew on everything including his own tongue, and produce dribble by the bucket load he may also start gurning with comical sound effects. Once teeth start to appear he’ll be able to vary the sounds he produces further and start to put consonants and vowels together. ‘Goo’ and ‘ga’ are the most celebrated but ‘da’, ‘ma’ and ‘gi’ are also popular combinations by about six months.

Soon he’ll start stringing together these vowel-consonant sounds to make a stream of baby babble and may have some favourite combinations such as ‘da da gi’. He may chatter away to himself for a while at times and at others leave pauses for you to respond.
By now your baby will be crying far less than when newborn as he can use noises to express a wide range of emotions and needs such as excitement, joy, surprise, interest, amusement, boredom, tiredness and discomfort. Coupled with physical clues he gives you you’ll probably have a good idea of your baby’s moods and needs.

Between six and nine months he will probably also want to experiment further with tone, inflection and volume. His string of babble may sometimes end with an emphatic exclamation and he might occasionally practice speech patterns by echoing the rise and fall of your voice.

Around this age some babies will also be delighted with discovering just how loudly they can shout or scream and a burst of ear-piercing noise may end in chuckles and a self-satisfied grin. Easier on parental eardrums is the sound of your baby singing to himself and you may find that he likes to sing himself as he drifts off to sleep.

Between nine and ten months your baby will begin to understand some of the words that you use most often, such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and common nouns, and is probably already trying to copy specific words, rather than just sounds. At this stage you might even hear your first proper word, which could be ‘yes’ or perhaps a noun that you frequently use. If your baby starts to use ‘ma ma’ or ‘da da’ to refer to you and your partner he’ll probably use the same term for both of you.

By the time your baby’s first birthday comes around you may well have heard your first few true words, and along with pointing, grunting, laughing and his own unique sounds, you’ll have established a good level of communication with each other. If your baby hasn’t produced a proper word yet then don’t worry, there’s a wide variation in when babies first speak and it could be in a couple of weeks’ time or you may have a few months still to wait, which would be perfectly normal.

What you can do

The best thing you can do to encourage your baby’s speech development is to talk to him frequently, right from the start. There’s no need to feel awkward about talking to a small baby: even when he doesn’t understand what you’re saying he will understand that you are talking to him and he can take comfort from your voice in the early days. Later he’ll be able to interpret the emotions behind what you’re saying by your tone of voice and by about half-way through his first year he’ll have such a good grasp of language that he’ll be able to separate silly animal noises from real speech.

He’s learning about language right from the off, so it’s important that he hears as many new words as possible. Try to speak to him as naturally possible, varying the tone and pitch of your voice. Give him plenty of opportunity to observe social interaction and, when he begins to gurgle back, engage him in ‘conversation’, allowing him pauses to respond to what you’re saying before replying back. In the early days it can encourage him if you mimic his babbling but later he’ll benefit more by hearing more proper conversation.

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One good habit to get into is to talk him through everything that you’re doing together, “We’re going to put on the blue jumper today”, and throwing in plenty of questions such as “Would you like to go for a walk? Shall we go to the park?”
A nice idea is to take a few minutes before bedtime to look back over the day and talk about what’s happened and what you’ve done.

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